Reporter shares personal flesh-eating bacteria story with South Allegheny students
South Allegheny honors biology students were fascinated — and a little grossed out — to expand on their bacteria lesson by reliving a local reporter's experience with flesh-eating disease.
Daily News reporter Michael DiVittorio shared photos and gory details of his 2012 diagnosis and treatment of necrotizing fasciitis, a rare bacterial infection of the skin and subcutaneous tissue.
“I feel 100 percent blessed,” DiVittorio said of his recovery from the deadly condition. “I don't know where I picked this up, and that will haunt me forever. You can have any type of bacteria on you at any time, and it won't affect you until there's an opening.”
Building on lessons in bacterial growth and transmission in Joy Wyler's honors biology class for high school freshmen and sophomores, DiVittorio told students he felt symptoms within hours of a routine surgical procedure to correct an ingrown toenail. He completed a full day's work after an outpatient visit and went home to sleep off what he assumed were flu-like symptoms.
After noticing swelling and red patches on his skin, DiVittorio drove himself to the emergency room, where nurses, doctors and specialists were baffled.
“They drew a map on my leg to cover where the redness was,” he recalled. “They checked on me every five minutes, and the redness kept spreading.”
With an initial diagnosis of cellulitis, another potentially serious bacterial infection, hospital staff called in doctors from facilities across the region to solve the mystery. After a series of blood tests and scans for broken bones or other causes for inflammation, doctors determined a streptococcus strain was eating his flesh from inside his body.
“The test results and cultures weren't going to be back within a day or two, but they had to deal with the symptoms immediately,” DiVittorio said. “Then, they showed me on a big screen what was happening to me. They said I had a deep infection that was eating my body away.”
Over the next two weeks in the hospital, several more weeks of in-home health care and months of physical therapy, DiVittorio learned about the disease that could have taken his limbs or his life. He read and saw television news stories about a woman in Colorado who was diagnosed around the same time.
Internet searches led him to the National Necrotizing Fasciitis Foundation, where he met fellow survivor Jim Fong of State College. Fong, a marketing consultant whose job took him all over the nation, experienced symptoms that surfaced on a business trip and landed him in the emergency room within 24 hours.
“We had similar experiences and could relate over this,” DiVittorio said. “It's something not many people understand.”
South Allegheny public relations coordinator Laura Thomson has been asking DiVittorio to share his experience with students and the public since his diagnosis.
“I've been telling him for two years to tell his story,” Thomson said. “I'm not a biologist, but I find this fascinating.”
Thomson and Wyler agreed that students can learn all they want about bacteria in their textbooks, but attaching a human element to the lesson is invaluable.
“There is a huge push in education for real-world application,” Wyler said. “To have someone local who survived this condition and can share this story is amazing.”
Jennifer R. Vertullo is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1956, or firstname.lastname@example.org.